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Sunken ship’s treasure returns to Spain from Florida

Treasure from a ship sunk in 1804 and discovered in 2007 by an American deep sea exploration company on Friday began a trip to Spain aboard two transport planes.

Return of the more than 23 tons of silver and gold ends a five-year legal battle between Florida-based Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc and the government of Spain over control of treasure from the galleon “Our Lady of Mercy.”

“The total was 49,000 pounds, much more than the 17 tons thought at first, because the first quantity the company announced was not correct,” Miguel Morer, press spokesman for the Spanish Defense Ministry, told AFP.

Odyssey stored the roughly $500 million worth of coins and artifacts at a warehouse in its hometown of Tampa.

The silver and gold represent the most valuable sunken treasure discovery in history.

Our Lady of Mercy was a warship sunk by a British fleet off the coast of Portugal near the Straits of Gibraltar during the Battle of Cape Santa Maria.

“Right now all the treasure and other valuables are loaded into the two Hercules aircraft to begin the journey to Spain” around midnight, Morer said Thursday evening from MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.

The flight with 595,000 silver and gold coins, along with religious images and chests, includes refueling stops in New Jersey and Canada before flying to Spain’s Torrejon Air Base near Madrid for a landing around noon Saturday.

The treasure is being handled carefully, Morer said.

“All this is in very poor condition because it has spent the past 208 years submerged and it still is submerged just to preserve it,” he said.

Morer explained that special packaging is being used to store the treasure in seawater and a liquid chemical to protect it from deterioration.

The last obstacle to Spain taking control of the treasure was removed last Friday, when US District Court Judge Mark Pizzo in Tampa denied Odyssey’s claim for $412,814 in storage and preservation fees from the Spanish government.

The five-year court battle included other rulings against Odyssey from a federal appeals court in Atlanta and the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC.

Odyssey shipped the treasure to the United States from the shipwreck site without notifying any government authorities.

The federal courts ruled that regardless of who discovered the ship and where its treasure was stored, US treaties define it as remaining the property of the country of origin. In the case of Our Lady of Mercy, the country of origin was Spain, the courts ruled.

Odyssey officials said the ruling could undermine Spain’s cultural heritage.

“Spain has been very short-sighted in this case,” said Melinda MacConnel, Odyssey’s general counsel.

“They have not considered the high cost of storage and conservation of these coins, but more importantly they have failed to consider that in the future no one will be incentivized to report underwater finds.

“Anything found with a potential Spanish interest will be hidden or even worse, melted down or sold on eBay.”